Steps are many but necessary
Judge Greg Galler
It is sometimes said that the wheels of justice turn slowly, but grind exceedingly fine. Many people become frustrated that there are so many steps before a criminal case is concluded. However, the process is better thought of as deliberate rather than slow. Important rights are at stake in a criminal case. A careful and methodical system is needed to protect those rights.
Let’s assume that Bob Burglar is charged with breaking into a home and stealing a diamond ring. Consider how many people are affected. First, the direct victim of the crime whose home was broken into and their property stolen. Second, the defendant who faces conviction and punishment. Third, the prosecutor who represents the general public interest in insuring that the rules of society – including the rules of court – are upheld.
Each has distinct rights that are taken into consideration in the criminal law system.
To begin the case the prosecutor prepares a written document, known as a formal complaint, that describes the alleged crime and recites the maximum possible criminal penalty. The complaint can’t be issued unless both the prosecutor and a judge believe that probable cause exists.
At Bob’s first appearance in court the judge is required to advise Bob of his constitutional rights. The case will not proceed until the judge is satisfied that Bob understands his rights and the charges that he faces.
At this initial hearing the judge may also set release conditions to insure that Bob will appear for future court proceedings and that public safety is protected. In some Minnesota counties, a hold-over rule from the days of when we had a separate county court system, breaks this initial hearing into two separate hearings.
Next comes the omnibus hearing. This is one of the most important hearings in the process. It allows either side to have the judge decide evidentiary, procedural, constitutional, and statutory issues affecting the case. Bob will also now be formally arraigned. This means he will officially answer the charge by pleading either guilty or not guilty.
Unless the case is dismissed at the omnibus hearing, the case next proceeds to a pre-trial conference. This hearing is the last best chance for the two sides to resolve the case before trial. If the case is not settled, the two sides will work with the judge to resolve logistical issues so that the case can be tried fairly and efficiently.
The jury trial is the most well-known court appearance. It occurs near the end of the case. Simple trials can be completed in a few hours others could take many months. If Bob is found not guilty the case is over. If he is found guilty then the case proceeds to a sentencing hearing. The sentencing, where the punishment is decided, is typically the last hearing to take place in most cases.
While the process may seem burdensome the wheels of justice do continue turning. It is a process designed to ensure that everyone has a full and fair opportunity to have their interests heard and protected.
Judge Galler is chambered in Washington County. Send general questions about the law or courts for Judge Galler to the editor of this newspaper at [email protected] Learn more about Judge Galler, or listen to a podcast of his columns, at www.judgegreggaller.com.